Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Mind, Once Expanded

(Above - The Haven String Quartet of Music Haven)

Music has been an important part of my life, even classical music, from a young age. I can remember special times with my Dad, laying on the living room floor on our backs next to each other, eyes closed, listening to music on the record player. As we would listen to each piece, he would ask me what I was seeing, feeling. A few of my favorite pieces from those memories were Aaron Copland's Rodeo, where we would take turns describing the sites and sounds of a rodeo (including a lazy, stubborn donkey in one movement!), and Johann Strauss' Blue Danube during which we would visualize the path of the famous river from source to sea.

Some of the pieces I listened to with my Dad, like Copland's, have grown to be like old friends, the comfort music I listen to when I want something familiar and safe. But I like new friends too, and I try to occasionally expand my listening repertoire with new pieces or composers. Like Copland's Symphony No. 3, for example. Though a relatively new addition to my listening repertoire, it has become one of very favorite symphonic pieces. Or work by Cuban-born Julian Orbon, a Copland disciple. His Concerto Grosso has hints of Copland's influence all over the orchestration.

Every now and then, however, a piece comes along out of the blue that totally rocks my world, upends my preconceptions, and speaks straight to my soul. This happened most recently at a recent performance of Kevin Volans' String Quartet No. 1 (White Man Sleeps) by the Haven String Quartet.

Volans, a South African-born composer, was previously unfamiliar to me until I was floored by the quartet's performance of White Man Sleeps. I had, after all, gone to the concert for the Beethoven, and after they played Beethoven first, I seriously though to myself, "I don't know how they're going to top that with a composer I've never heard of."

But top it they did! After a brief introduction to the piece by the violist, the quartet jumped straight into the aural fantasy that is White Man Sleeps. Hearing the piece for the first time live was an incredible experience, and it kept me enraptured for about a half an hour through all five movements. I felt like Lewis and Clark seeing the Pacific for the first time, "O! The Joy!"

Volans, a white man, was born and came of age in apartheid South Africa. He was educated in both South Africa and Europe and has lived most of his life outside of Africa. Inspired by field research and recordings of his native South Africa in the early 1980s, White Man Sleeps takes cues from traditional folk songs and instruments. Though Volans' piece breaks so many of the expectations of more traditional classical music and at times even challenges preconceptions of what musical beauty should sound like, the sounds, rhythms, and playing techniques seem to evoke the feeling of Africa to their very core.

In a statement about the piece, which was written in the early 1980s, the last full decade of South African apartheid, Volans says, "I wrote White Man Sleeps [as] the third in a series of pieces in which I hoped, perhaps somewhat naively, to reconcile African and European aesthetics. I wanted to reflect in the music an image of a multicultural society - one in which the traditions of different cultures are represented, honoured and, above all, shared - no more 'separate development'!" In the same theme, Volans said, "Like many white South Africans of my generation I was brought up to think I was European. I went to live in Europe and found this was not true. I returned to Africa and was disappointed to find I could not really regard myself as African."

As I have been reflecting on the piece (and listening religiously to a recording of it I bought on iTunes), I keep wondering why I have been so taken by the piece. It is an odd piece of music using conventional standards, so I must admit my ears were prepared by a few years of listening to even more peculiar 20th century classical pieces by such composers as John Adams, whose Hallelujah Junction for Two Pianos has so many odd an dissonant cords it sounds at times like a cacophony of broken carnival games, and Steven Reich, whose concept of phase music floored me when I learned about it for he first time and which still never ceases to excite me musically, intellectually, and scientifically. Part of my interest, then, is in White Man Sleeps' unique and innovative sound and feeling within the tradition of other 20th century classical pieces.

Part of it, though, is that it is by a South African and inspired by Africa. My parents lived in South Africa for a few years in the mid-2000s and I had the privilege of visiting twice. If you know me, you know I have a strong passion for Latin America, but upon returning from Africa, I told someone, "if I didn't already have such a deep love for Latin America, I think Africa would certainly be a place that would capture my heart." Africa can get under your skin and into your blood in a short amount of time. I wonder if that is what Volans experienced when he returned to his native land and was inspired to write this piece?

Knowing of Volans' explicit intent that the piece evoke the rhythms and sounds of Africa, I can, as if laying on the floor with my eyes closed, visualize while listening to the piece some of the things I saw first-hand in my visits--the long drive across the Karoo, the women carrying impossible bundles on their heads, the roadside craft stands, the tin shacks, the colors of traditional dress, the incredible landscape, the haunting sound of the dove calling "I love South Africa"--as well as many of the things one can only dream about or see on documentaries--the ceremonial dances of native tribes, the deep darkness of the dark continent, the power of tribal tradition, the legacy of apartheid and post-colonialism...

It has been said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. But here I am writing about music on a blog about architecture! Part of the reason I decided to write about the piece is because I cannot stop talking about it, or listening to it, or thinking about it, and I hoped this outlet might let me express some of these pent-up feelings. I mostly want to relate the very visceral reaction I had to the piece within the context of my own art and composition--that of architectural design. I was thinking that I hope someone some day might experience the same sense of wonder at a work of my design as I experienced upon hearing this piece for the first time. But I know this is a nearly impossible task. The only building that I have seen in person that was able to evoke a similar reaction was the Pantheon, and those types of buildings come around only once every few millennia.

I have found some videos of the piece being performed by another quartet on YouTube. Though I hope you enjoy them, I am not able to vouch for the quality of the recording as I have not listened to them all the way through. Hopefully, though, they begin to whet your own appetite to find a better recording of the piece (there is at least one on iTunes) and experience its magic for yourself.

The first movement starts in immediately at a frenetic pace of complex rhythms. Do not let the quiet portion in the middle of the movement fool you into losing your focus. It is simply the eye of the storm before the frenzied finish!

Though picking a favorite movement of this piece would almost be like trying to pick a favorite child, I must say I cannot seem to get enough of this the second movement. As with the first movement, the tempo is fast from the beginning with slower sections used as a foil for the quicker parts. The beautifully melodic underlying theme is introduced immediately and it is woven through the entire piece over and over in different ways. Part way through the piece, the sawing rhythm intensifies suddenly as the violin takes on the theme before reintroducing it to the ensemble in a new way--the artists turn their bows over and hit the strings with the stick! Volans does not cease to surprise in this movement: the ending is like something you get from fast-forwarding a recording! This is a driving piece to me and reminds me of the vast scenery of the desert in a drive we did across the country.

The third movement begins entirely picked on the cello in a feat of what appears to be pretty advanced technique. The use of the cello in this manner gives the feel of traditional African instruments which may be hit or plucked instead of bowed. The other instruments come in part way through the piece and repeat their bird-like call through the end. This movement reminds me of the sad call of the dove that woke me each morning at my parents' house, "I love South Africa...I love South Africa...I love South Africa..."

The fourth movement starts quietly with a series of moving chords and parallel lyrical lines. A little less than half way through the piece, a small silence introduces a haunting lullaby like melody played on the viola to pizzicato accompaniment. The melancholic sadness of the piece fill my heart with sorrow for the painful history of the African continent--but its beauty reminds me of a lullaby a mother would sing as she hopes for better future for her child.

The best way to describe the fifth movement is "swarm." It reminds me of the frenzy of something you might see in a documentary on tribal coming of age customs. The muted sounds of the instruments move the piece from start to finish without ceasing, culminating in a satisfyingly unsatisfying ending that leaves the heart empty enough to want to listen again.

As I reflect on the few pieces of music over my lifetime that have done that thing where they simply make my jaw drop in awe, I am reminded of a quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes: "The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size." Though I know I will get over my constant listening frenzy and White Man Sleeps will probably become one of the old friends I turn to from time to time for comfort, I feel fortunate to know that my world is just a little bit bigger than it was before I heard this piece.


The Haven String Quartet performed this piece again today at the Yale Art Gallery (excepting movement 4). As with before, it was a special treat to experience this piece live.

Although the small introduction at the concert the other day was helpful, today's more in-depth discussion of the piece really added depth to my understanding of it, and to my appreciation for it. We heard recordings of some of the songs, instruments (one of which I can't remember the name of but looks an awful lot like the Brazilian berimbau with which I am familiar with from capoeira), and rhythms that had inspired Volans to write White Man Sleeps.

I really appreciated the gallery curator and the quartet walking us through some of the movements ahead of time, for instance highlighting the groups of 24 notes played 5 times through over and over again but at different tempos and different combinations of instrumentation. Also, on the theme of African music, it was noted that the musicians in African groups work together more than in the tradition of Western music. Whereas in Western music, we often venerate the man (the virtuoso) who can perform the work of 10 men, in African music, the group of 10 men work together to produce the whole. This can definitely be heard in the way Volans layers the parts of the piece and passes the lyrical melodies between the instruments.

I can't wait to listen for all this again the next time I listen to the piece...which will probably be in about 5 minutes when I finish my lunch, put on my headphones, and get back to work!